By Jessica Goodwin
It’s the third Wednesday of the month and Pastor James Sledge opens the door to the Falls Church Presbyterian Fellowship Hall, greeting guests with a friendly smile. The room is already crowded, with almost 200 guests patiently waiting for the start of the Welcome Table dinner for underprivileged members of the Falls Church community.
The Welcome Table mission at Falls Church Presbyterian began in 2011 as a once-a-month dinner to serve those in need in Falls Church and surrounding communities. In September 2013, the church expanded the program to serve dinner on the first and third Wednesday of each month. Full-sized toiletry items are distributed to guests at the first Wednesday dinner; the grocery assistance cards are passed out on the third Wednesday. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of 30 to 40 volunteers each week, the Welcome Table mission serves approximately 50-60 guests on the first Wednesday and 200-250 guests on the third. Through the church’s monthly hunger offering and other donations, the Welcome Table mission is able to provide the community with their twice-monthly Welcome Table meals.
As guests come in, Sledge hands each adult a numbered card, which he explains keeps things orderly.
“One Wednesday we had as many as 400 people,” he recalled. “There are lots of families. Lots of kids. We see a lot of the same people at each meal.”
At promptly at 6 p.m., an announcement comes over the speakers; the first numbers are called and guests line up by the kitchen to receive their dinner. They turn in the laminated cards they received upon entry and claim their $10 grocery assistance cards.
The kitchen in the Fellowship Hall runs like a well-oiled machine. In preparation for each Welcome Table meal, volunteers donate their time to prep, chop, cook, serve, monitor the beverage station and clean up. Volunteers arrive early in the afternoon to begin prepping food and clean-up begins as the guests start lining up for dinner. The servers dish up food with a friendly smile while a hospitality crew attends to guests’ needs by escorting moms and small children to their tables.
When a Welcome Table volunteer signs up to be head chef, they’re in complete control of the menu. Some chefs stick to familiar, tried-and-true recipes. Others opt for something a little more elegant; experimental, even. Each week the chef plans their meal, they factor in different religious and dietary restrictions and include vegetarian options on the menu if necessary.
For this late July evening, the chef on duty mixes conventional with the slightly obscure: chicken salad, succotash and sautéed squash with tomatoes and onions. Best of all the meals aren’t just served up on flimsy paper plates; instead, the guests receive generous helpings of hearty food on ceramic dishes.
According to Pastor Diane Walton Hendricks, the goal is to make sure that everyone gets a healthy, well-balanced meal. In addition to getting out of the heat (or the cold) and getting a home-cooked meal, some visitors to Welcome Table come for the companionship. Deacon Kelly Foster emphasized a sense of community.
“We have a lot of regular guests. We see a lot of familiar faces. People stick around and chat after dinner. They even help us clean up and stack chairs.”
If you’re interested in joining the Falls Church Presbyterian Church Welcome Table mission, they’re always looking to add people to their team of volunteers.
“People can go to our web page and sign up right online,” Sledge said. Worried that your cooking talents aren’t up to par? “I’m not good in the kitchen, so that’s why I’m here at the door,” Sledge joked.
In other words, there’s a job for everybody. Even the youngest of volunteers can help by rolling silverware and refilling the fruit bowls. In addition to needing volunteers, the Welcome Table mission is also in need of donations. They accept donations of full-size toiletry items which are given to guests at the first Wednesday meal of each month; the mission can always use fruit for both meals. Monetary donations are accepted as well.
Residents who would like to see the mission in action are invited to stop by the Falls Church Presbyterian fellowship hall on the first and third Wednesday of each month. Doors to the dinner open at 4 p.m. and dinner is served at 6 p.m.
Hendricks said some guests show up early to make sure they are able to get a meal, but she added, “We tell people we always have enough. We tell them, ‘Even if you don’t get here until six, we’ll still be able to feed you.’”
More information on the Falls Church Presbyterian Church Welcome Table mission is available at fallschurchpresby.org.